Visiting Rights: Helping Kids Stay in Touch With Parents in Prison

Children need their parents-even if those parents are in jail. Educator Jessica Reid has found a simple way for kids to stay in touch with their incarcerated dads.

Visiting Rights: Helping Kids Stay in Touch With Parents in PrisonMaya Haynes watches her father pick a card from the stack. She’s crazy for crazy eights, and the two of them play every other Sunday while her mother, Chrislyna, looks on. They’re both down to one card. “Have you finished the Harry Potter?” he says, as he returns a card to the stack. “Order of the Phoenix? I finished that last month. I’m on to Half-Blood Prince now,” she says. “Jeez, it’s hard to keep up with you,” he replies. Her hair done up in twists, Maya jumps in excitement as she discards her last card-she’s won every game this afternoon-and her father shakes his head.

A large man in a uniform suddenly stands beside him-the fun is over. Maya hugs her father and, holding her mother’s hand, joins the crowd of families filing out of the building toward their white bus. Maya was three when, perched demurely on the front seat, she began these biweekly trips. Back then, she thought her father was away at work. Now, five years later, the lanky fourth grader knows better: he’s in prison. For the past two years, he’s been held at the Beaver Creek minimum-security facility in Gravenhurst, Ont., two hours from her  home in Toronto. Despite the stressful procedures-the march past a metal detector, guards digging through her backpack-the hour-long visits mean everything to Maya. “She can’t wait to see him,” says Chrislyna. “It’s all she ever talks about.”

With the families on board, the bus begins its drive back. Walking up and down the aisle is Jessica Reid. Dressed in yoga pants and a sweater, the 27-year-old educator distributes snacks, books and toys. Three years ago, teaching at an early-childhood centre, Reid noticed signs of depression in three of her students-one four-year-old girl would wake from her nap screaming that she would never see her dad again. The students, she learned, all had a parent behind bars. She also discovered something else: there was nothing set up to assist the estimated 358,000 Canadian kids who have parents in jail-5,000 in the GTA alone.

This, despite research that the stress of parental imprisonment leads kids to higher rates of learning disabilities, developmental delays and aggression. Worse, such children are five times more likely to have run-ins with the law-with an elevated risk of becoming inmates themselves. “We know these kids need extra support,” Reid says. “What was missing was an initiative to facilitate that.”

So Reid-with the help of her father, Derek-founded FEAT (Foster, Empowering and Advocating Together), a group that provides emotional and psychological support for children with an imprisoned parent. FEAT offers four bus trips a week to nine correctional facilities in five Ontario cities. In just over two years, the bus has transported some 350 families. Since many of the children live in poverty-which can intensify once a parent is in jail-kids ride for free, while adults are usually charged $30 to cover gas.

Prison visits remain the group’s cornerstone, but Reid also invests in esteem-building activities. This includes an after-school program where FEAT kids can socialize, wilderness retreats (Maya has gone rock climbing and horseback riding) and mentorship sessions in which Toronto’s Ryerson University students help kids develop healthy coping strategies by encouraging them to express their anger or shame through writing and art. As a result, Maya-like many of her friends in FEAT-has flourished. “She used to be very withdrawn,” says Chrislyna. “But she’s talking a lot now, which is good.”

“The point,” Reid says, “is to remind them they’re not alone.” As the bus rumbles, she stops to coach a girl on the finer points of flattening play-dough so that it can be stamped with cookie cutters. She notices a child staring out a window. “Honey,” she says, handing her supplies, “do you want to draw a picture for Daddy?”

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